Tag Archives: ashland

Reign, reign, go away: it floods again

Doll Tearsheet (Nell Geisslinger), Falstaff (Michael Winters) and a disguised Prince Hal (John Tufts) in "Henry IV, Part Two." Photo: T. Charles Erickson/Oregon Shakespeare FestivalT. Charles Erickson/OSF

By Bob Hicks

All right, now, enough is enough. Not to get all Bardic on your heads, but this truly seems to be the summer of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival‘s discontent.

Yesterday we told you about the storm that sapped the power all over the festival’s hometown of Ashland, and the emergency-tent performance that was thus wiped out, and we recounted the perils of the broken playhouse, which after six weeks of darkness thankfully will be whole again in another couple of weeks.

So now let’s catch up with last night and the Case of the Empty House. That would be, The Case of the Empty House Awash in Rain, except it wasn’t totally empty (Mr. Scatter exaggerates) and the rain, for all its annoyance, wasn’t exactly a gullywasher, although a fair share of the audience that did show up treated it like the Johnstown Flood.

The theater was the Elizabethan Stage, that grand open-air space that holds 1,200 people. The play was Henry IV, Part Two, the midplay in the Henry saga and in many ways the least stirring, yet a play that still has considerable charms. The audience was … sparse. I’ve seen a few light houses in the 30-plus years I’ve been coming to the festival, but for a Saturday night in July and a play that may not be one of the box-office boffos like Twelfth Night but is hardly Troilus and Cressida or Pericles, Prince of Tyre either, the wide swaths of empty seats were shocking.

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Ashland 2: Much ado about book shops

Parnassus on Wheels, by Christpher Morley, illustrated by Douglas Gorsline

Parnassus on Wheels, by Christopher Morley, 1917. Illustration by David Gorsline, 1955 edition, J.P. Lippincott Company.


Mount Parnassus, as you’ll recall, is the home of the Muses,
rising above Delphi in Greece. For that reason the word “Parnassus” has come to stand for music and poetry in particular, and for literature and learning in general — if not for civilization itself, then for those things that make a civilization worth building.

With only one show Wednesday at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland — Much Ado About Nothing, in the evening on the open-air Elizabethan Stage — my sister Laurel and I spent the afternoon rustling around in book shops along Main Street.

There is, of course, Bloomsbury Books, at the south end of downtown, a good general new-books store that I’ve been visiting off and on for more years than I can remember, and where I’ve made many a find, including John Updike’s novel Gertrude and Claudius, an imagining of the events that led up to the events in Hamlet. This time I was looking for a specific book, David S. Reynolds’ history Waking Giant: America in the Age of Jackson, and it wasn’t there.

So we crossed the street and, leaving the realm of the new, embarked upon the fascinating, tempting, nostalgic, disorienting and reorienting world of what once was.

It’s hard to imagine two used book shops that put on such different faces as the pair along the east side of Main in this literate foothills town.

Shakespeare Books & Antiques, closer to the festival grounds, is the work of a collator, a curator, an ordered and interesting mind. Everything is neatly lined, carefully arranged, comfortable. The antiques are lovely and tasteful, from a wondrously detailed old cast iron fire engine to sets of beautiful blue china. The place is an invitation, evoking images of rose petals and tea. And the books are handsome and substantial: You could spend hours happily checking these shelves.

The Blue Dragon Book Shop, just across from Bloomsbury, is an old curiosity shop — a clutter of loosely arranged subjects and oddities, a rambling undergrowth fertile with possibility for hardy explorers hacking their way through with sythes. Old sheet music flutters on one table. Another holds mid-1950s copies of Playboy and 19th century editions of Harper’s Weekly with Thomas Nast’s Civil War illustrations. You need to watch your feet, if not for snakes, then for makeshift standing shelves jutting into the aisles.

When an old book interests me I open the pages and smell it. The smell can be dank and chemical and spoiled, like a bottle of corked wine, and that’s the end of it: The deal’s off. Or it can smell of old wood and dried leaves and mushrooms on a log, a smell that only time and settling-in can achieve. That’s the book for me — if not to buy (I do have a budget, and a limited amount of book space) then to handle, to hold, to feel with my fingers and take in with my eyes before reluctantly returning it to its shelf.

I find an 1898 children’s book, Who Killed Cock Robin? and Other Stories, which has ornate illustrations and gives a lively alternate version to the old poem and is, I realize, a bargain, but not one I choose to afford on this day. I pick up a nicely printed copy of Francis Parkman Jr.’s The Oregon Trail, with excellent drawings, that smells good and is in good shape at a good price. But it plows straight into the story (first published as 21 installments in the old Knickerbocker Magazine in 1847-49) with no introduction, and if ever a book needed to be set properly in its time and place, The Oregon Trail is it. I leave it for another person on another day.

At Shakespeare Books Laurel discovers several editions of the Edward Fitzgerald translation of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, each with its own elegant illustrations, none quite like the edition we grew up with, which Laurel now owns, complete with unfortunate childish pencil doodlings on the opening pages.

At the Blue Dragon she calls me over from a row away, where I’m looking through a two-volume 1940s edition on pre-Columbian art,  Medieval Art of America. I like to look through books published during World War II, which often are on thick pulpy paper and usually smell alive and are testaments to the determination to make beauty even in a time of scarcity. Sometimes too much scarcity. Medieval Art of America seems thorough, and serious, and impeccably researched. But it contains not a single illustration of the art it so painstakingly catalogues.

“Do you remember this?” Laurel asks, handing me a slim, well-bound copy of Christopher Morley’s 1917 novel Parnassus on Wheels. This is a 1955 edition from J.P. Lippincott Company, with fine line illustrations by Douglas Gorsline, and whether it’s the same as the one in my father’s collection I can’t recall (Laurel has that one now, too) but it smells like a bright autumn day and it’s ten dollars and I buy it.

Parnassus on Wheels is the unlikely and whimsical story of a New England farm woman in the early years of the 20th century who buys a traveling horse-drawn van complete with horse (named Pegasus) and dog (Boccaccio, or Bock) and gads about the countryside, selling books to farm and town folks. As a child the story reminded me of the library bookmobile that made regular visits to the farms of friends. As a townie I could walk easily to the library on my own, but sometimes I wished the bookmobile would stop at my house, too.

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Ashland times 2: A Q&A about the festival’s new direction

It’s been around since 1935, when, legend has it, a young college prof named Angus Bowmer persuaded the town fathers of Ashland, Oregon, to let him produce two performances of “Twelfth Night” and one of “The Merchant of Venice” on an old Chautauqua stage for the town’s Fourth of July celebrations. They gave him $400 and one stipulation: He’d also have to stage some boxing matches to cover the expected deficit from the Shakespearean shows. The boxing matches lost money. The Shakespeare did boffo business and covered the prize-ring losses. And with that, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival was off and running.

A lot’s changed in the intervening 73 years. The festival is by most measures the biggest regional theater company in the United States, producing 11 plays annually — usually four or five of them by Shakespeare — in a season that runs from late February through October, and which uses three theaters: the 1,200-seat, open-air Elizabethan Stage (actually an outdoor Elizabethan-style stage attached to Greek-style amphitheater seating with a wraparound porch like a vintage 1930 baseball park’s); the exquisitely adaptable, 600-seat Angus Bowmer Theatre; and the sophisticated black box known as the New Theatre, which averages about 300 seats. To these shows the festival sells more than 400,000 tickets every season, making Ashland a particularly upscale sort of tourist town, with an Elizabethan purse, sweet Victorian buildings and, underneath both, the practical bones of a modern Western working town.

As the festival goes, in many ways, so goes Ashland: The commercial success of the two are intricately linked. Both have benefited from the festival’s astonishing stability. After Bowmer, it’s had just four artistic directors: Jerry Turner, Henry Woronicz, Libby Appel and, beginning this season, Bill Rauch.
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Ashland report: Words fail (and rescue) the festival

I walked into the open-air circle of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival‘s Elizabethan Stage last night a disgruntled man, and three hours later walked out, finally, with what I’d come to Ashland looking for: the emotional, intellectual and aesthetic transformation that fine theater can achieve. Thank goodness for Our Town.

The trip’s been fine: that glorious drive south of Eugene, where the climate changes and the road becomes a curving slice through the mountains. (Why is Rice Hill at the bottom of the hill and the Rice Valley exit at the top?) An overnight stop, with two good meals, at the Wolf Creek Inn, where Jack London stayed in a tiny room for a few weeks in 1911 and wrote a story called The End of the Story. (I’m going to have to look it up: I’ve never read it.)

A quick stop at the nearby gold-mining ghost town of Golden, where volunteers are working to stabilize the remaining wood-frame buildings (the church has new glass in the windows) of a little boom town that was always different: Built by preaching miners, it had two congregations and no saloons. Two or three genuine markers lie in the little cemetery, but most of the headstones are fakes, set there many years ago for filming of an episode of Gunsmoke: So the not-so-wild West reinvents itself. And bless the volunteers, who have split new rails for the fence along the little road and are slowly reclaiming the natural state of the gouged-out mined areas below the town. May they outfox the woodpecker who was tap-tap-tapping away at the old church spire.

But in Ashland, aesthetically, it hadn’t been a good beginning. On Saturday afternoon, indoors at the Angus Bowmer Theatre, a gauche and vulgar version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a play that deserves far, far better. Dream is a wonder of the Western World, one of the most nearly perfect plays ever devised, and I’ve often thought it close to foolproof. Turns out it’s not. It can be defeated by a director and designers determined to overwhelm the magic of its language with insipid pop-cultural winks, incessant visual distractions, head-scratching hand gestures that appear to be choreographed but have no apparent link to the emotional lives of the characters or the plotting demands of the story, and a general busy-ness that makes it almost impossible for the actors to settle into the quiet glowing heart of the story. It was the Roman circus, not the magical wood. My congratulations to Ray Porter, who managed a fine low-comedy focus as Bottom, and Kevin Kenerly, who kept his dignity intact as Oberon while all around him were being engulfed in foolishness.

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